Developed by Joseph Pilates in the early 1900s, Pilates is a core-based total body exercise. The simplest form requires just a mat, such as a yoga mat, but there are many types of apparatuses that can be used to increase the body's range of movement.
So, just how might Pilates benefit us mountain bikers? The answer is fairly simple:
“You need a strong core to be most efficient on the bike. Pilates allows the legs to do their job. You can rely on your core to sustain your cycling posture instead of your arms. In addition, Pilates takes your muscles through their full range of motion in an active manner allowing for a greater cycling experience,” says Shannon Barbadian, Polestar Pilates instructor and mentor, and co-founder/owner of Defy Gravity Studio in Corona del Mar, CA.
Cassey Ho agrees that having a strong core will help a cyclist transfer more power to the pedals of the bike. The certified Pilates and fitness instructor says Pilates creates a sturdy platform for the lower body to push against. In addition, Ho remarks that many cyclists have lower back issues due to the nature of the sport.
“Pilates is perfectly complementary because it is known for improving posture, flexibility and for strengthening the low back through the core-focused exercises,” she explains.
Beyond Muscular Legs
Ho, creator of POP Pilates, says it's important to work your whole body to improve balance through proportionality. This is not only good to get through workout routines like Pilates, but having a balanced body makes day-to-day functional tasks much easier. Plus, the more muscles you're able to work, the more calories you can burn overall.
The upper body needs to be strong for improved balance and posture.
“With good posture comes a strong core, and with a strong core comes everything good,” says Laura Fox, BASI Certified Pilates instructor and co-founder/owner of Defy Gravity Studio in Corona del Mar, CA.
Pilates allows the muscles that are being shortened in a cycling class or while on the trail to be lengthened and stretched, creating muscular balance.
Louise Knoop, director of Body Control Pilates South Africa notes that Pilates will allow a cyclist to access natural stability within the movement sequences of cycling.
“We do not only need to stabilize our core, we need to work all joints in good alignment with healthy range of movement,” she observes.
Cyclists, although very strong in the lower body, may have issues with back pain, overall posture and flexibility in the back from being hunched over for the duration of the ride, remarks Ho. Pilates can help open up the chest and straighten out the spine through the following exercises.
The Superman: Lay prone or on your stomach and lift both arms straight in front of you and lift your legs up as high as you can, quadriceps off the floor too. Tighten your gluteus muscles and lift your chest. This strengthens the lower back. Try to hold for 30 seconds, suggests Ho.
Downward Dogging Cobra: Begin in a plank position on your hands and toes. Then reach the hips/bum up towards the ceiling and press your upper back flat. Now quickly lower yourself into a cobra, lifting your chest as high as possible. Repeat about 10 to 15 times. “This will open up your chest, encourage flexibility in your back and improve posture,” Ho says.
The Plank: Hold your body straight above the ground either on your hands and your toes (most advanced), your hands and your knees, your forearms and your knees (beginner), or your forearms and your toes. Tuck your tailbone into your spine and suck your belly button in to engage the core. This will strengthen your abs and back all in one move.
Standing Hip Stretch on the Reformer: This exercise lengthens the quadriceps while strengthening the hamstring.
Pikes on EXO Chair: This uses pure core strength. Your abdominals are literately lifting you in the air.
Extension on the EXO Chair: This will increase strength of postural muscles for the lower back.
Leg Circles on the Reformer: “This is every cyclist's favorite!” exclaims Barbadian. It lengthens the hamstrings and increases the health of the hip joint.Additional cycling-specific exercises include:
- Spine Curls to mobilize and stabilize the spine as well as create balance in the supporting muscles of both legs.
- Table Top 1 and 2 to strengthen and balance out the torso.
- Sliding Down the Wall to mobilize, align and strengthen the hips, knees and ankles. Try variations of this exercise on the Reformer.
Cross-Train with Pilates
Cross-training is about preparing the body, strengthening and adaptability. Cycling on uneven terrain requires the ability to adapt one's posture, weight-bearing and movement. Pilates teaches this stability through its variety of movement sequences, notes Knoop.
Mountain bikers want every ride to be better than the last. Pilates takes the muscles that are being shortened while cycling and not only lengthens them, but strengthens them at the same time. This ensures that you will experience a more efficient ride when you return to the bike.
“Cyclists who have Pilates in their program enjoy shorter recovery times in between rides, while giving them the opportunity to work their back muscles in extension since cyclists spend the majority of their time in flexion,” says Fox.
She adds that one of the most important reasons to include Pilates in any cycling program is to increase bone density.
“We know those falls can be nasty,” she concludes.